What If

“What if?”, is one of the most exciting questions in the human lexicon. “What if”, is the key to open the heavy door of  complacency and the status quo. “What if” gives permission to explore all the places we’re told to avoid. It’s the moment when Dorothy dares to look behind the curtain to see who the Wizard really is.

Asking questions is dangerous for those invested in not rocking the boat. “What if” dares to suppose that what you see is NOT what you get. And that can be the stuff of disruption and the harbinger of change and even revolution.

What if is foundational to science. One assumes that any experiment, complicated or grossly simple, begins with what if. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a multi-billion dollar project began when a few cosmologists got together with a few astrophysicists and a few astronomers and collectively asked, “What if? What if we could send a telescope into space, a million miles away from Earth, far enough to avoid light and heat and gravitational pull and scan the Universe? What if we discover findings we weren’t expecting?

JWST has found a trove of startling phenomena, some of which has changed everything we thought we knew about the Universe. Just recently, JWST has detected galaxies from very early in post Big Bang time that shouldn’t be there. They are huge, way bigger than anything that fits what the Universe was “supposed” to look like in the early formation era. The Pennsylvania State University’s Joel Leja, who took part in the study, calls them “universe breakers.”

“The revelation that massive galaxy formation began extremely early in the history of the universe upends what many of us had thought was settled science,” Leja said in a statement. “It turns out we found something so unexpected it actually creates problems for science. It calls the whole picture of early galaxy formation into question.” That’s what happens when you mess with assumptions and ask, what if?

Pushing the envelope, looking just past the margins, wondering what’s on the other side, whether it’s dark or light, is a Jewish preoccupation. From Spinoza onward, we’ve asked, ”What if?” We’re not afraid to imagine alternate worlds and systems. Whether it’s the early Reformers of the 19th century who dared to ponder an alternate expression of Judaism (What if the Torah was a human document), the disaffected Jews of the 19th century who were profoundly troubled by the societies in which they lived (what if there were a radical alternative to the brutalty of capitalism), or the intellectual Jews who looked at the world and sought to explain it in a new way: what if human consciousness included the unconscious (Freud)? What if there was a dimension called spacetime that warped gravitational force and explained relativity (Einstein)?

We love messing with what is to explore what might be. It’s in our DNA. Of course there are Jews who fight this natural rebelliousness in favor of keeping the rules narrow and the doors to change locked up. But in the end, the urge will bubble up. The Women of the Wall will keep gathering on the plaza to the Western Wall, and ultra-Orthodox Jews will slap them and kick them and try to prevent them from praying. There is a law before the Knesset that will prohibit women from wearing a tallit in public under penalty of incarceration. But WOW will keep going back, asserting that they have the right to gather and pray and read from the Torah. What if, they will ask, if women were truly treated as equal to men?

Asking what if and then daring to reflect on the answer is how we keep going, how we grow and evolve. It’s mind altering for scientists who imagined that early galaxies would be small and diffuse. But they asked anyway. And now look what they’ve done! As astronomer Joel Leja said, “We’ve found something we never thought to ask the universe — and it happened way faster than I thought, but here we are.”

What if…? Women reading Torah at the Wall? Jewish life flourishing after the Holocaust? New Jewish traditions emerging? As Dr Leja said, “…here we are.”

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